By Carl Hulse
It is a testament to the decline in party relations in the House that a simple private meeting Wednesday between Democratic and Republican leaders to discuss an economic stimulus plan was treated as remarkable.
In 2007, the first year of Democratic rule and Republican exile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, and the minority leader, Representative John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, barely spoke. The senior party leaders and their respective staffs circled one another like the Sharks and the Jets, displaying a similar spirit of trust, cooperation and understanding.
But Ms. Pelosi said Wednesday that she hoped the glimmerings of bipartisanship seen on the economy could serve as a model and lead to increased dialogue between the two parties, easing some of the bitterness from last year and the partisan rancor that has pervaded the House from the days leading up to the Republican takeover in 1994.
''I don't want my legacy to be a continuation of that attitude,'' said Ms. Pelosi, the first woman to hold the speaker's job. ''I had to get a certain amount of work done. I did. Now we need to go on to the next step, which is to expand the conversation.''
After a dozen years in the minority, Democrats came to power a year ago, promising a new tone and pledging that they would not treat minority Republicans like they had been treated: shut out of negotiations, prevented from offering amendments and just generally overrun by Republicans trying to solidify their grip on Congress.
But from the Republican perspective, things got off to a bad start when Democrats rammed through legislation on the minimum wage, energy, combating terrorism and other party priorities without allowing Republicans opportunities to push their alternatives. Angry Republicans fought back, using procedural moves, politically charged amendments and efforts to embarrass the speaker through tactics like highlighting her request for a larger airplane than her predecessor used for public trips.
Democrats won bipartisan approval of many of their chief issues, but the enmity simmered through the year, fueled by repeated clashes over the
Ms. Pelosi acknowledged that she occasionally short-circuited the process but said it was necessary to achieve some of her first-year goals. And she said she understood what Republicans were trying to accomplish in the minority, having spent considerable time there herself. But she said she hoped the climate could be improved. ''Now that everybody has established their parameters, I think that we will be able to move forward with confidence,'' she said. ''I have respect for them. I want everything we do here to have legitimacy, to have a broader base of support, not just a simple majority. So I welcome the opportunity to increase not only the bipartisanship, but the communication.''
Ms. Pelosi dismissed the notion that her attitude was an outgrowth of public calls for conciliation that are being sounded with some success in the presidential primary campaign. But others believe those are echoing in the corridors of a nervous Congress.
''There's a general pervasive feeling that
Still, some veteran lawmakers are dubious that the tensions between the two parties can be eased, particularly in an even-numbered year. ''Get serious,'' said Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho. ''It is a presidential election year.''
Yet the tone in Congress, at least in the first 48 hours of the session, is a bit different from 2007. Members of both parties are moving cautiously, feeling one another out and not wanting to be the first to drop a political bomb. If voters are looking for change, the mood suggests, it is probably best to show you are getting the message now rather than waiting to get it in November.
''Bipartisanship is spreading out all over,'' declared Representative Steny H. Hoyer of
The Republican leadership was approaching the Democratic overture gingerly but certainly did not want to be seen as refusing any olive branch. Or taking it and breaking it in two.
''I am hopeful we can work together,'' Mr. Boehner said.
Mr. Blunt, the No. 2 Republican, said maybe things could be better, at least part of the time.
''This is a political year,'' he said. ''So my guess is we'll have a conciliatory start and a conciliatory finish and the middle won't be all that good.''
Ms. Pelosi said she envisioned more regular meetings with her Republican counterparts, though not on a fixed schedule. And she said she believed the top lawmakers had at least a foundation of cordial relationships to build on.
But no one expects the two sides to suddenly drop their gloves and embrace. A serious Congressional election is looming, and both parties will soon be trying to coalesce around a presidential nominee, eager to draw distinctions between the two competing ideologies.
And, as Ms. Pelosi noted, Congressional political conflict is daily and intimate. But she said it was her hope that House members of both the Republican and Democratic persuasion could figure out a way to clash over ideas while finding at least a smidgen of common ground.
''You can do both,'' she said. ''This body was created to be a marketplace place of ideas. The idea was you would come and debate different points of view. It is not a bad thing to say, 'We disagree.'